April 2020 News

Whilst we have unfortunately had to close our physical offices, all Fitzroy Legal Service staff are working remotely and are here to help. Please call on (03) 9419 3744 or email [email protected]

COVID19  has challenged us to think creatively and look at innovative ways to deliver vital services to clients at a time when they need us more than ever.  For an update on our work please keep reading below.

Covid-19 response and advocacy

In response to the health challenge posed by Covid-19, we are conducting most services remotely, via telephone or video conference.   Whilst this has created challenges from an accessibility perspective, we still continue to receive client referrals from our partner organisations. This is testament to the strong relationships created through our various health justice partnerships.

We have also been active in raising concerns about the impact of Covid-19 on vulnerable members of our community who may have a higher prevalence of conditions that affect immune system response and increase vulnerability to transmission of Covid-19.   This is particularly relevant for individuals who are experiencing homelessness or may have alcohol and other drug substance use issues.   We note that specific challenges are already arising as a result of Covid-19- issues such as increased reliance on alcohol, isolation and relapse, limited access to treatment, counselling supports both out-patient and in-patient, mental health and isolation, and consistency of access to pharmacotherapy. 

We have also been busy meeting with Ministers and Government representatives to advocate for measures to prevent an outbreak of Covid-19 in prisons, to ensure safety for prisoners and detained people, and supporting overall community health and well-being.

Drug Outreach Lawyer Program

In recognition of the effectiveness of our City of Yarra Drug Outreach Lawyer (DOL) Program, we were able to expand the program into the City of Darebin in 2019, in partnership with Uniting ReGen and YSAS.  The relationship with our partners generates access to large numbers of people engaging in treatment episodes and presents opportunities for expanded support beyond criminal law and infringements to family violence and family law.  The program received 77 referrals in the first 11 months of operating, 50 of which led to a client being assisted. 

An external evaluation of year 1 of the program found that it has developed strong working relationships with partner agencies who reported that the DOL program is becoming increasingly embedded in their work. Referral processes are well established and continuing to evolve and improve. Professional development provided by the program is highly valued and considered relevant and useful and partner agency staff reported that sessions to date provided information that helps workers to better assist their clients.

Funding for the DOL program expansion was provided via the Victorian Government’s Integrated Services Fund 2018-2019 and supported by the Federation of Community Legal Centres.  The Federation recently highlighted the important work of this program through a short video which can be viewed via this link: https://vimeo.com/389127270.   We received a second year of funding to continue the program in 2020 however without a further funding commitment, the program will cease in January 2021.  

Rachel & her Children project update

In its 2018 grants round, the Victorian Legal Services Board awarded funding to our "Rachel & her children" project.  The project commenced in March 2019 as a pilot to test a new model of integrated service delivery for victims/survivors of family violence – the model being a collaboration between legal services (focused on the rights, best interests and instructions of the primary carer) and child support services (focused on the rights, best interests and well-being of the child).  The project is being delivered in conjunction with Save the Children Australia, who employ the child focused worker and provide their expertise in children's rights and well-being.  We have also formed partnerships with the Connie Benn Centre and the Neighbourhood Justice Centre who have generously offered us consultation space.   An external Evaluator has been engaged from the outset to contribute to the implementation of the model, and moreover, to evaluate its effectiveness. 

The pilot has highlighted that the "Rachel and her children" model is ideal where there are extremely complex family violence legal matters in which a child or children have multifaceted needs that need to be met.  Mary (not her real name) is one of the clients we have assisted through the project.

Mary is a Culturally and Linguistically Diverse client, who has very limited English proficiency and requires an interpreter. The interpreter must be from interstate as she is known in her community and is very afraid of being located by her former partner. Mary has a number of children and has separated from her former partner due to serious, and prolonged family violence. Mary had to flee from the relationship, and the house that she owns, with all of her children after serious incidents of family violence.  The abuse ultimately culminated in her eldest child being violently assaulted by her former partner and as a result, the police issued a Family Violence Intervention Order (FVIO) protecting her and the children.  She and the children are terrified to return to Mary’s house, and have been couch surfing at friends properties for a long time. 

Mary is not working and cannot afford a private rental of her own. She has also acquired a significant Centrelink debt that she does not understand. Mary cannot understand what the bank is telling her about her mortgage and property, but is trying to sell her home as she cannot return to it. Mary did not understand the terms of her FVIO or how to report breaches. Mary is now connected with a family violence case manager through an external organization, and the project Child Support Worker for intensive support and assessment for her children. The two are able to identify gaps in the service system for Mary and her children. Our lawyer is able to advise her on her family violence, property and debt issues. Despite this assistance, as it stands, Mary and her children are effectively homeless. Additionally, Mary’s debt affects her eligibility to obtain housing support through her family violence case managers. Mary’s trauma from the family violence is overwhelming and impacting her readiness to engage to seek assistance. The complexities of Mary’s legal issues, have the potential of overshadowing the unmet needs of each of her children, and the project Child Support Worker is actively working to prevent this.

The model has not come without its challenges. It is a new way of lawyering, and supporting primary carers’ and their children, and has required a substantial departure from traditional legal practice.  This has been felt from the practitioner’s perspective (legal and child focused staff), and at times from the client engagement perspective as the benefits of the model are not always easily understood – particularly to a client in crisis who needs urgent legal advice or representation.

As a pilot project, testing a new multi-disciplinary model and partnership, the evaluation of Rachel and Her Children is being undertaken using a developmental evaluation methodology. At the mid-way point of the project, the emerging findings suggested that this model is highlighting service system gaps and a promising approach to address these gaps. Importantly, the project is achieving its aim to make the children of victim/survivors of family violence ‘visible to services’.    The model is reaching a point where the emerging findings can be more fully tested, and that extending the testing period for the project would therefore be of great benefit. The project has only been funded  for a 15 month period until 30 June 2020. We are actively pursuing funding to be able to extend the pilot.

Volunteer Program

Earlier this year we welcomed Anna Caleo to the team as our new Volunteer Coordinator.  Our volunteer program is vital in supporting the work we do, with around 300 individuals volunteering their time with us each year.   We were pleased to see one of our former volunteers, Sonia Sawant, profiled recently about her role with Victoria Legal Aid.  In the article Sonia notes that "Earlier in my career, I was in commercial law, but I volunteered with Fitzroy Legal Service for years, and I came to realise that I wanted to be in court."  https://www.legalaid.vic.gov.au/about-us/news/im-addicted-to-going-to-court-sonia-sawant-is-adapting-to-new-reality

The Law Handbook 2020

In February we were proud to release The Law Handbook 2020 - the 42nd edition of this much loved resource.   Eighty nine contributors volunteered their time to write and update content for The Law Handbook 2020 and we thank each and everyone one of them for their commitment to high quality legal information.

The Law Handbook 2020 is available for purchase in hard copy, eBook and as individual PDF chapters via our website store.   Furthermore, our commitment to ensure legal information is available to all sees The Law Handbook 2020 and all its chapters accessible free on  https://www.lawhandbook.org.au. This site continues to be in demand - over the past 9 months the website has been accessed by an average of 21,500 individual users each month.

Client feedback

Our lawyers continue to have a strong commitment to high quality, holistic legal assistance and it was pleasing to receive two pieces of client feedback:

City of Darebin Generalist Services

We recently received a lovely letter from a client who had been assisted by Senior Lawyer Lauren Gordon.  The client wrote “I would like to take this opportunity to pass on to you my thoughts on the proficient and professional manner in which Lauren prepared my case.  I would like to express my sincere thanks to her and would have no hesitation in recommending her and your organisation to anybody in the future”. 

Employment Law Clinic

A client wrote of their extremely positive experience with our employment law clinic staff and volunteers:

"We would like to say thank you so much for your professional work and your kindness. My partner got terminated her contract after she got surgery since November. We were so frustrated at that time. And we decided to go to Fitzroy Legal Services. Adrian Snodgrass gave us a hand and help us a lot for our case. After that he let Morgan and Karl to work for the next process. Morgan, he is a very professional lawyer. He prepared all document and see what is the best way for us. We will never forget your help.  Thank you for the best Free legal advice Fitzroy Legal Services. You are the best and We really appreciate your help."

Support our work

If you would like to support our work, please consider making a donation.  Donations over $2 are tax deductible and can be made via our website https://www.fitzroy-legal.org.au/donate.